Thursday, 26 January 2012

Book Review: Aftertaste by Namita Devidayal

The Marwari’s business acumen is legendary and the Todarmal family epitomises the typical, rich Marwari business family where every member of the family plays a role in the family business, which is headed by a shrewd and smart patriarch. However, the Todarmal family is a little bit different in one respect – it is headed by a matriarch, the formidable Bimla Kulbhushan Todarmal, aka Mummyji, who, at a time when the family was in crisis, not only conceived from scratch the mithai business, but also grew it to its present (in 1984) size and strength. Namita Deviayal’s Aftertaste revolves around the last few days of Mummyji, which happen to coincide with the Diwali of 1984 and Indira Gandhi’s assassination, with a lots of flashbacks. Mummyji has held the family together after Daddyji’s demise. Her eldest son Rajan Papa is weak and vacillating. Second son Sunny has his mother’s business acumen, but lacks the necessary human element. Eldest daughter Suman is fair, pretty and vain and wants her mother’s jewels. Saroj, the second daughter has suffered the most and is the most likeable, but even Saroj wants her mother to die, so that she can inherit her wealth.

Deviayal writes well, exceedingly well and her lyrical prose brings to the fore the Todarmal family’s love for wealth and how everything they do centres around the quest for money. Mummyji loves her children and grandson Rahul to death, but she seems to love her business and money even more. Without belittling anyone, Devidayal holds a mirror to this excessive love for money and the havoc it can wreak on relationships. The treatment of Saroj’s husband by his own family when he refuses to collaborate in a fraud, is a case in point.

There was one big fly-in-the-ointment for me in this splendid novel. There are a couple of references to chicken curry being eaten by members of the Todarmal family and a solitary reference to a breakfast of eggs. Granted, we have been told the Todarmals had settled in Punjab many generations ago, had adopted local (Punjabi) language, customs etc. and once in a while a lad is addressed as ‘puttar’, I still found the chicken curry difficult to digest. One does find Marwaris settled all over India, but one doesn’t hear of Marwaris turning non-vegetarian and eating chicken at the family dining table. Most of the time, Devidayal talks of the Todarmal children and Mummyji’s late husband Daddyji eating mithai by the kilo, along with other traditional Marwari staples such as kachoris, pooris, aloo parathas and the like. The two references to chicken curry caught me unawares and spoilt the atmosphere for me. A financially well-off carnivore in India wouldn’t eat meat once in a blue-moon - it would be eaten almost on a daily basis. If the Todarmals are non-vegetarian Marwaris who regularly eat chicken curry at home, the rest of Devidayal’s description of their culinary habits becomes grossly inaccurate.

I ought to reiterate that despite this hole, the story does hold up very well and drops the reader bang in the middle of the Todarmal household listening spellbound to a riveting tale narrated wonderfully well. Devidayal packs in a lot of detail regarding the mithai business. We are told that when the Todarmals started to make and sell mithai, Mummyji has strategically arranged for supplies of milk and sugar and ghee. We are told of Mummyji’s brilliant ideas for making barfi with Maggie and Bournvita, sweets shaped to meet Independence day and Holi themes, sweets in the shape of corporate logos, Sunny’s coup in getting varak, the silver foil used to garnish the mithai, made by a machine rather than the then prevalent ‘non-vegetarian’ method. However, I found certain important bits missing. As the business grows, one isn’t given details of how new employees are hired and managed. Except for a few references to a jalebi maker by the name Pooran, one doesn’t get a clear picture of how many employees the Todarmals have. Most importantly, there isn’t a single mention of the kitchens where the mithai is made. Is it a big central kitchen or many kitchens spread all over Bombay? Maybe it is a good thing Devidayal doesn’t get into such detail to indulge nitpickers like me – it might have spoilt the story.

Devidayal does the needful to bring in the 1980s effect. There are obligatory references to Binaca Geetmala, Gold Spot, Ambassadors, Premier Padminis, the 1971 war over Bangladesh and occasional discussions regarding Indira Gandhi and the troubles in Punjab. These are well done, but I didn’t really feel I had been transported to the 1980s. When Devidayal ends her brilliant novel, new elements are introduced to the Todarmal family – Rajan Papa befriends a Hindu fanatic who runs a Dharma Biradari, a group of upper middle-class and rich folks who do social work and meet on Sunday mornings for Bhajans and Breakfast; Grandson Rahul is a closet homosexual, to whom Mummyji has willed Cozy villa on condition that his inheritance will be only after his marriage.

At the end of it all, Aftertaste is a brilliant critique of the Todarmal’s excessive love for wealth. We are told that as the Todarmals gathered for the Diwali puja, ‘the goddess stood mute, watching the family with her ancient, painted marble eyes. How badly misunderstood she was yet again. Like her pet owl which doesn’t see during the day, these people were blind. She was not the goddess of wealth, but of well-being. She was the other side of Narayan, the god of right thinking and right action, but they worshipped only her, desperate, ignorant. .......... And so, while the priest muttered incomprehensible mantras, yet another Diwali unfolded before the Todarmal family.’

An excellent read which I would happily recommend to all and sundry without any hesitation.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Book Review – “Scammed: Confessions of a Confused Accountant” by Anonymous

It’s always a pleasure to read a book written by an industry insider. Some months ago, I had read Puneet Gupta’s Suicide Banker which gave an intimate account of banking fraud. The main fly in the Suicide Banker’s ointment was that Gupta was not particularly savvy with his prose and I was left wondering when India would produce a Stephen Frey.

Now here comes a book written by an anonymous accountant, who will cease to be anonymous if you google the book’s title and/or read articles such as this one by The Hindu which is much better written than Gupta’s Suicide Banker. "Scammed: Confessions of a Confused Accountant" is a light read with a plot that manages to show the underbelly of India’s corporate world. Hitesh Shah, the protagonist, is a much bullied accountant who gets his big break when an impressed client offers him a CEO’s job. The new job is glamorous and pays big bucks though it carries with it a not-so-faint stink of tainted money and dirty politics. Like most other people in his position, Hitesh Shah leaps at the opportunity and as the CEO of Super Cabs, a private taxi company, is soon in the limelight. He is interviewed by TV channels and the pretty Sushma finds him attractive enough to date and live-in. The promoters of Super Cabs want aggressive growth and despite some misgivings, Hitesh largely obliges them.

Powerful people usually have powerful enemies and the political opponents of Super Cabs' promoters soon raise the temperature at Super Cabs. Not long after, there some trouble with labour unions and allegations of fraud start flying. Hitesh is left holding the can and is soon on the run. Sushma is no longer in the picture-she had ditched Hitesh some time ago, but the much more genuine Payal lends a helping hand, as do a few other genuine friends. How does it all end when Hitesh is not totally innocent since he did ignore the usual warning signs and had turned a blind eye to many questionable things? Surely this unusual book can’t have a totally happy ending? Do please read this book to find out for yourself – it’s a simple, light read, written in functional prose that would serve you well on a long train or plane journey.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Book Review: “The Average Indian Male” by Cyrus Broacha

Everyone has heard of Cyrus Broacha. Show me an adult living in any of the Indian metros who hasn’t heard of Broacha and I will show you someone who is deaf and blind. In addition to being a stand-up comedian and a prankster, Broacha is also an actor (TV and films) and a writer. Over 2 years ago, Broacha’s first book Karl, Aaj aur Kal, a semi-autobiographical tongue-in-cheek, witty write-up about cabbages and kings, Bollywood and men in power, was released. Last year Broacha’s second book The Average Indian Male came out and it’s been on my reading list ever since.

The Average Indian Male has satire and it’s typical Broacha satire, poking fun at all and sundry, pointing out faults in a manner that has you in splits. However, it would be incorrect if I said The Average Indian Male has only satire and nothing but satire. For when Broacha pokes fun at the average Indian male, he does have an unerring aim, managing to hit all the right spots. It’s all in there – the Indian male’s propensity to hold hands (with other Indian males), to pick his nose (in the presence of other Indian males and females), to fart (also in the presence of a number of people) to stare, to pee in the open, to demand that his wife perform/provide/protect just like his mummy and to do a number of other routine things.

In addition to holding up a mirror to the average Indian male, Broacha also gently shines a light on Indian society as a whole. For example Broacha says, ‘Know your place’ is like a game – when any Indian meets a fellow Indian, we immediately decide to adopt an inferior or superior stance. A fellow Indian is either below you or above you in the social scale, never equal. Let’s look at this chart/ Father/mother, above you. Children, below you. Mr. Sharma, your neighbour, who is older, above you. Mrs. Sharma who is younger, below you.

A pigeon, below you. A cow, above you. A God you’ve heard of, definitely above you. A God you haven’t heard of, still above you. A normal building, below you. A religious structure, above you. The sun, moon and stars above you. People in a village in the Sunderbans, below you. ....... Your driver, below you. A famous driver like Lewis Hamilton, above you........’

A small number of the wise-cracks do fall flat, but that’s likely to vary from reader to reader. All in all, this a very good book, worth every paise one pays for it.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Getting Off A Virar Fast At Borivali – Launch of Urban Shots Crossroads Anthology

In May 2011, I had submitted a short story called “Getting Off A Virar Fast At Borivali” to the Urban Stories Competition 11 jointly run by Landmark and Grey Oak. My story was shortlisted and has now been published in an anthology called “Urban Shots Crossroads”. Urban Shots Crossroads has 30 short stories in all and has been edited by Ahmed Faiyaz, author of books such as Love, Life & All That Jazz, Another Chance – Miles Apart and Scammed - Confessions of a Confused Accountant.

The Urban Shots Crossroads anthology is now available for pre-order on Flipkart.

Urban Shots Crossroads is to be launched in Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore on the following dates:

19 Jan 2012 - 7 pm, Landmark, Infiniti Mall, Andheri, Mumbai

20 Jan 2012 - 7 pm, Landmark, Phoenix Marketcity, Pune

21 Jan 2012 - 5 pm, Reliance Time Out, Cuningham Road, Bangalore

There will also be events in February in Delhi and Chennai (between 8 and 14 Feb 2012).

All are welcome to attend these events, which I am told will be graced by well-known authors and Bollywood celebrities.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Book Review: “Seal Target Geronimo – The Inside Story Of The Mission To Kill Osama Bin Laden” by Chuck Pfarrer

I bought this book with great expectations, hoping to read a blow-by-blow account by Chuck Pfarrer, a former SEAL, of the operation by US Navy SEALS that led to the killing Osama bin Laden. Pfarrer does provide a detailed description of the planning and execution of the raid into Abbottabad. Nevertheless I was disappointed because I am not sure how much of this book is true and can be believed.

That’s right. I am not sure I can believe Pfarrer’s account and here’s why:

In addition to providing a detailed description of Operation Neptune Spear (originally called Operation Geronimo) which led to the death of Osama bin Laden, Pfarrer has provided a lot of background information about the growth Islamic fundamentalism and Muslim/Arab grievances in general and the Afghan insurgency in particular. Pfarrer starts with the creation of Israel and the Israel-Palestinian conflicts, goes on to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the contributions to the cause of the Mujahiddin by Arabs like bin Laden who were influenced by the Palestinian dispute and the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pfarrer’s description of the Israel-Palestinian conflict is remarkably fair. There are as many mentions of terrorist activities by the Irgun as there are of PLO-led terrorism. Pfarrer doesn’t shy away from stating that Israeli soldiers stood by and watched as Phalangist Christian militias carried out the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. Pfarrer actually says that Israeli soldiers fired flares to help the militias carry out their dirty work, but I am not sure if that’s factually true. Pfarrer also says that ‘It is one of the ironies of history that the most emblematic weapon of Islamic terrorism, the truck bomb, was invented not by a Muslim fundamentalist, but by a radical Jew. Menachem Begin, the son of a Russian timber merchant, came to......’ I didn’t know that the truck bomb was emblematic of Islamic terrorism. As far as I know, truck bombs have been used by the LTTE in Sri Lanka, the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh and the IRA. What gives Pfarrer the right to say that truck bombs are emblematic of Islamic terrorism? Statements such as these are only a foretaste of what’s to come.

According to Pfarrer (try not to laugh as you read this), Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction. After the US and its allies invaded Iraq, large quantities of WMD were handed over by Iraqi forces to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. This may make you wonder why there have been no attacks on coalition troops with chemical weapons. But there have been a number of such attacks, all of which failed due to a combination of the lack of skilled personnel at Al Qaeda Inc, bad luck (Al Qaeda’s) and the courage of US troops. On a number of occasions, Army’s Tech Escort Battalions whose personnel are skilled at handing nuclear and chemical disasters had to be called in to deal with chemical weapons planted by the Al Qaeda in Iraq. And why didn’t any of the newspapers or news channels report all this in detail? Because they had originally claimed that Saddam did not have WMD and hence have a vested interest in maintaining that fiction.

How did the US detect bin Laden’s location? Because bin Laben’s number two, Ayman Zawahiri betrayed bin Laden by using a courier whose cover had been blown to carry messages to bin Laden. According to Pfarrer, Zawahiri had been trying to get Osama bin Laden killed ever since the day they were fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. It was Zawahiri who betrayed Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who was the main brain behind the 9/11 attacks. Why did Zawahiri do so? Because he was jealous of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who was sociable and clever and was favoured by bin Laden.

The fictions go on and on and since Pfarrer seems to make up a lot of stuff, I am not sure how much of his detailing of Operation Neptune Spear can be believed.

In addition to the various fictions inserted in this book, there is a fair amount of melodrama. When Pfarrer describes how a predator drone targeted and killed Zarqawi (whose killing had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden’s), he says: ‘Six miles above the date grove, unseen and unheard, a Predator drone, call sign Reaper Three Zero, banked at the edge of the stratosphere. It’s sensors rolled over the city below. Streetlights, car headlights, the lights of houses spread in a rolling blanket, like a mosaic of stars. The lights marked progress and peace, businesses and places where families lived. In the dark places there was poverty, frustration and anger. The dark places were where men like Zarqawi preached hatred and planned murder.’

Sometimes, certain incidents are mentioned twice, which can be irritating. For example, we are told that ‘there was almost always a pinch of Copenhagen snuff tucked into (Red Squadron’s leader) Frank Leslie’s lower lip’ We are told about the Copenhagen snuff in two different places. Ayman Zawahiri’s killing is described twice, once in melodramatic detail and later in a matter-of-fact manner.

Pfarrer does not provide any authority or reference or bibliography for his sources of information.

Pfarrer’s description of how the US Navy trains its SEALs is very good and I assume it is an accurate description, since Pfarrer is an ex-SEAL. Also, I assume that at least some of the details of Operation Neptune Spear must be true, though one turns sceptical when one reads that the US didn’t use its most stealthy stealth helicopter for this operation since it feared it might fall into Pakistani hands.

Oh and by the way, according to Pfarrer, the bomb which killed Zia-ul-Haq was planted by the KGB in retaliation for Pakistan’s support for the Mujahiddin.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Book Review: “Hello Bastar – The Untold Story of India’s Maoist Movement” by Rahul Pandita

Rahul Pandita is a journalist based in Delhi and he reports for Open Magazine. Pandita has an enviable record of reporting from the frontlines of various conflict zones – Kargil, Iraq and various tribal areas in Central and Eastern India where a Maoist insurgency flourishes. It was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who in 2006 referred to Maoists ‘as the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by this country’. It made the entire country sit up and take note. However, India’s Maoists, also referred to as Naxals, have been around since the mid-1940s when peasants in Telangana who were severely oppressed by the Nizam took to the gun. They acquired visibility when in 1967, a few disenchanted young men and women in the Naxalbari district of West Bengal picked up arms and challenged the might of the State. The Indian government has by and large treated the Naxals/Maoists as a law and order issue. Within 2 years of the Naxalbari incident, Operation Steeplechase, a combined operation of the army, paramilitary and various state police forces was launched in West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The current Home Minister P. Chidambaram too has followed the same approach. In August 2010, a few weeks after 75 CRPF men were killed by Maoists in forests near Chintalnar-Tarmetla village in the Dantewada district of Chattisgarh, Chidambaram declared that “that the problem of Left wing extremism will be overcome in the next three years.” Chidambaram’s prediction is yet to come true and by the looks of it, is unlikely to be fulfilled in the immediate future.

Pandita’s grassroots research in the jungles of Chattisgarh, Bihar and other parts of India where the government’s authority has faded or never existed in the first place and where Maoists guerrillas (who owe allegiance to Chairman Mao and the Revolution he has espoused) rule the roost, is path breaking to say the least. Hello Bastar – The Untold Story of India’s Maoist Movement is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how the Maoist insurgency has taken root in the jungles of central and eastern India. Pandita adopts a sympathetic tone as he tells us about the Maoists. The reason why Maoists have survived for so long despite so many setbacks is obvious, though Pandita does take the trouble to spell it out. Poverty, abject poverty of the sort which doesn’t exist in any other part of the world other than Sub-Saharan Africa, is the main cause for the continued existence of Maoists in India.

Initially, India’s Maoists owed outright allegiance to Chairman Mao and China. ‘China’s Chairman (Mao) is our Chairman’ was the Naxal slogan. This in a way backfired since India’s exploited peasants did not have an Indian leader who could motivate and lead them. In West Bengal, Jangal Mahal area, an organisation called Dakshin Desh was started – India being referred to as ‘Dakshin’ as opposed to China which was called 'Uttar Desh'! Do India’s Maoists still owe allegiance to modern-day China which is more capitalist than many countries in Western Europe? Pandita is not very clear on this point. Pandita also doesn’t refer to weapons or arms being provided to the Maoists by foreign countries.

Hello Bastar has detailed descriptions of various Maoists leaders which is invaluable for a student of the Maoist movement in India. One of the leaders so described, Kishenji, was killed by the CRPF in November 2011. Many of the Maoist leaders described by Pandita - men and women like Kobad Ghandy and Anuradha Ghandy nee Shanbag - come across as committed individuals who are much more concerned about improving the lives of tribals and other marginalised people than in imposing Maoist rule in India. Pandita does make references to killings and massacres carried out by Maoists, but Pandita doesn’t show them to have ruthlessness that is in anyway comparable to the legendary ruthlessness of men like Mao Tse Tung or Chou En Lai.

Pandita makes the very valid point, something which the Maoists themselves are aware of, that they have made very little headway in urban areas, though most large Indian cities have huge slums and a very large percentage of people live in those squalid slums. Then, why is it that Maoists haven’t been able to make their presence felt in India’s urban settings which have so much poverty and inequality? Also, why haven’t the Maoists been able to attract college students the way they used to in the 60s and 70s? Pandita asks Ganapathi, a Maoist leader, whether he thinks Maoist movement will ever be as successful in Gurgaon as in Giridih (a Maoist stronghold in Jharkhand). He replied: “All the riches between Giridih and Gurgaon have been produced by people from poor areas like Giridih. It is the poor Dalit and Adivasi labourers who are spilling their sweat and blood for the construction of huge mansions and infrastructure by Indian and foreign corporate lords. The majority of the workers and employees who work in the shopping malls and companies are from these areas. In terms of social, economic and cultural ties or in terms of movement relations, Gurgaon and Giridihs are not two unconnected islands as such. They both are influencing each other. This is creating a strong base for our extension. If Giridih is liberated first, then basing on its strength and on the struggles of the working class in Gurgaon, Gurgaon will be liberated later." To me, this statement sounded farfetched. Places like Giridih have been ‘liberated’ by the Maoists for many decades, but they have had little bearing on the various Gurgaons of India. Pandita comments ‘that may be a far cry, but not as far as it may sound to the government.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Book Review: “We Of The Mountains - Armenian Short Stories”

I inherited this short story collection from my Dad. Nineteen stories in all, published by, who else? Progress Publishers, some of them just three pages long and some, over two dozen. I read this collection for the first time when I was thirteen or so and I reckon I must have read it at least half a dozen times so far. Recently I re-read this collection or rather, skimmed through it. Some of the stories are written prior to the Communist takeover of Armenia and the rest are set in Soviet Armenia. Many deal with the transition to Soviet rule, a couple are set during the Second World War and a few tell the story of youth, love and ennui in Soviet Armenia.

Many of the authors are men who have never lived outside Armenia. A few have, like Derenik Demirchian (1877-1956) the son of a poor shopkeeper who trained as a teacher in Switzerland or like Gegam Sevan who was born in Istanbul where he studied law and lived in Libya, serving the Communist Party of Libya, before moving to Armenia. One of the authors, Abig Avakian, was born in Teheran, educated at the American college there and served in the Iranian Air Force. He migrated to Armenia in 1946. Some were involved in the fight to make Armenia communist and underwent punishment and suffering under the Tsar. For example, Avetik Isaakian was arrested for activity against the Tsarist regime and imprisoned at Tiflis. A few fought for the Soviet Union in the Second World War.

Almost all of the stories describe the beauty of Armenia, especially the mountainous parts. In “The Alpine Violet”, Aksel Bakunts tells us that “The top of Mt. Kagavaberda is draped in clouds the year round. White drifts hide the jagged walls of the castle, with tall black towers emerging here and there. From afar it seems that sentries are patrolling the ramparts, that the great iron doors of the castle are locked and that at any moment a guard might a stranger scaling the mountain.

But when the wind scatters the clouds and the white shreds dissolve, first the leaning top of a tower appears and then the overgrown walls, half-buried in the earth. There are no iron gates, there are no sentries.

Silence reigns over the ruins of Kagavaberda. The only sound is that of the turbulent Basut in the canyon below as it rushes along, polishing the blue quartz of the narrow bedrock. It seems that a thousand wolfhounds are howling beneath the churning waters, gnawing away at their iron chains.”

However, the description of nature’s beauty is interspersed with descriptions of human behaviour which is not always particularly beautiful. In the village from where beautiful Kagavaberda can be seen, a peasant has come home from a hard day’s labour, only to find that his wife has had some visitors in his absence. ‘Jealousy, like a bolt of lightning, rent the peasant’s seething soul. He opened his eyes wide. He turned pale. The woman looked at her son and flushed; her husband noticed the colour rising to her cheeks. The next moment he was on his feet. His hairy hands grabbed the heavy staff and brought it down across the woman’s back.’

Avetik Isaakian’s “Saadi’s Last Spring” is similar to “The Alpine Violet”. Nature is described in words that are equally beautiful and human emotions do not play second fiddle.

In “The Flowering Of A Book”, Derenik Demirchian takes us to the world of Zvart, a youngster with a very wild imagination and a philosophical and poetic outlook. Zvart has been consigned to an abbey by his parents who were convinced that he is mad. The Abbot is a good man and he treats Zvart kindly, allowing his genius to flourish, though the other monks, with the exception of Gunkianos, hate him. After the Abbot’s death, Zvart is imprisoned by the jealous monks, but before Zvart dies with a smile on his lips, his thoughts are converted into a book, with paintings by the talented Tade. The book now has to be kept safe.

“Night had fallen. Winter had set in over the mountains of Armenia. It was piercingly cold. The sky was as a frozen pane of glass. Gunkianos made his way down the slope. There was a bundle over his shoulder, and he carried a book wrapped in a silk handkerchief. His fingers were numb with cold, but he would not have let go of the book even if his hand had withered.

Gunkianos had run away from the monastery. His one aim was to save the book at any cost. If only he succeeded.... He did not know where he was going. A terrible storm raged over the mountains. The valleys swarmed with soldiers. Cities, villages, monasteries and libraries were all put to the torch.

By morning the storm had thrown a white blanket over the mountains the gorges. An old monk coming out of an ancient monastery discovered a half-frozen man with a sack over his shoulder by the gates. Beside him was an open book, the blue sky smiling up from its pages.

The old monk picked it up reverently.”

The stories written prior to the communist takeover give an idea of the sort of life Armenians led, one interrupted by war and Turkish invasions. Travellers always got a hearty welcome and a bed for the night.

In Rafael Aramian’s story “She Took A Pitcher And Went For Water” an Abbot spending the night with strangers introduces himself thus:

“I’m Armenian,” he said stirring the soup.

“I can see that.”

“I’m from Kutaii, the son of Gevork and Takui Sogomonyan. I’m an abbot. My name is Komitas.”

I wonder if Armenians still introduce themselves by giving the names of their parents? Most probably not! Komitas the abbot is forced to make a second trip to the same village and stay at the same house, this time to inform his host that her son died in a faraway land and would not return. “May the earth over his grave in a foreign land be light,” the dead man’s mother tells Komitas with tears in her eyes.

In a similar vein, with lots of old world charm and a heavy rustic touch, Abig Avakian’s “The Last Line” tells the story of Gegam, a man who hails from the Van region of Turkey. Driven away from Van by marauding Turks who killed his father and sisters, Gegam went to Persia where he ran a mill. One rainy night, there was a knock on the mill door. Outside, he found Tuti a gypsy girl. Turks in blue pantaloons stood on the opposite bank. One of them shouted, “Hey miller! Chase the girl out before we wreck your place!”

Gegam wanted to shout back, “Just you try! I know you dogs! I’m from Van. I saw you wreck our home, shoot Kha-chatur-airik and drag my sisters into the cellar!”

But could he say all that?

Swinging his axe instead, he shouted, “Just you try to wreck my house! I’ll make such a mess of you, your ancestors will turn in their graves!”

The men on the far bank held a whispered conference and then one of them shouted, “We’ll remember that miller.

Gegam wanted to marry Tuti, but Father Hovannes refused to marry them since Tuti was not a Christian. Nevertheless Gegam took Tuti as his common-law wife and she bore him three strapping sons before she died. Turks in blue pantaloons destroyed Gegam’s mill and so, as noted in Gegam’s diary “In July 1946, we set out for the heavenly land that is called Mother Armenia.”

Interestingly, as mentioned above, Abig Avakian, the author of this story was born in Teheran and he migrated to Armenia in 1946.

Houvannes Toumanian (1869-1923), one of the most reputed among Armenian writers, is considered the Armenian equivalent of Pushkin. His story “My Friend Neso” is a brilliant portrayal of the inequities of society - before the Revolution of course. Neso is a popular lad, like by all and admired for his story-telling. However, when the village had a school, Neso’s father couldn’t afford to send him to school.

Toumanian tells us that I can still hear Neso’s wail as he rolled in the dust and cried: “I want to go to school, too!”

And I can still hear his father’s voice shouting: “For God’s sake, can’t you understand! I don’t have the money! If I had three rubles, I’d buy grain with it, so’s you wouldn’t all be hungry. I don’t have the money!”

Many years later, the narrator finds Neso tied up in the village square, about to be flogged for thievery. The narrator intervenes and saves him, but ‘cannot forget little Neso sitting on the logs on moonlit nights, telling us stories. Neso, so pure and sweet. Neso my childhood friend.

Stefan Zorian is one of the Founders of Soviet Armenian Literature and his story “The Girl From The Library” is a classic tale of the Revolution. Victoria Danelian is an educated girl working in a library whilst her mother is a household help who pays regular obeisance to her masters and the priests. The story is narrated by Victoria’s mother who is slowly educated in the ways of the revolution.

“What sort of holiday is May Day?” Victoria’s mother asks Victoria. Mind you, this is just before the Revolution.

“May Day is the working people’s holiday. Workers all over the world are celebrating today. Right now, this very minute, workers in all the cities of Europe and America are gathering together.

On May Day, Victoria makes a speech in front of a crowd of workers. “Comrades! Everything that’s been said here is a pack of lies because these gentlemen’s words have nothing to do with their deeds. They say that all working people must unite, but they don’t want to unite with the Russian workers who are fighting for the happiness of all working people."

Victoria’s speech gets her into trouble and soon she is arrested. Her mother is ridiculed by the Landlord and his family for Victoria’s Party activities. ‘How could you have given birth to a traitor?’ she is asked by Landlord Mikhak’s wife. Victoria’s mother turns to different quarters for help, but if rebuffed everywhere. Finally she goes to the priest, Father Barseg, who also tells her that Victoria is a traitor. She walks away thinking, ‘That’s a priest for you. He always said that we must help the poor, but here I am, in trouble, and he’s turned his back on me. That’s a holy man for you.’ This is slightly melodramatic stuff, but is still very well written.

Victoria’s mother often visits Victoria in prison until Victoria is transferred to a larger prison in Yerevan. Can Victoria’s mother make it to Yerevan? Of course she can, with help from two kind men who are actually secret Party workers. In Yerevan she stays with Artush, another kind stranger, who is also a Party worker. Then one day the Bolsheviks manage to take over the Government and there is much rejoicing among workers. Artush and Victoria’s mother set out for the jail. ‘There was a crowd carrying banners outside the prison. One of the men had climbed a box and was addressing the prisoners leaving the jail. “Comrades you have been through much suffering and deprivation......"

Just as “The Girl From The Library” is the story of the civil movement that assisted the Bolshevik takeover, “On the Mountain” is the story of the war between the Dashnak army which controlled the short-lived Democratic Republic of Armenia (1917-1920) and the Soviet Bolsheviks that led to the communist conquest of Armenia. The Dashnaks are the villains in the story, making a last stand on the cliffs of Agara Gorge against Soviet forces who have reached the left bank of the Agara. In the Dashnak headquarters, a peasant who refused to fight the Soviets is being whipped. Captain Enoch Agamian is shouting into the phone: “Is this the switchboard? Get me Khanatsakh. That you Barkhudar? Have you sent off the transport? What?!” Enoch grabbed his gun and waved it at the phone, as if he were threatening the man. “Are you mad? What do you mean ‘it’s impossible’? Are you just sitting there, waiting for the Bolsheviks? Listen to me, you’re asking for trouble. The Bolsheviks won’t shoot you, I will! D’you hear me? I’ll take care of you myself. Send ten wagons of provisions 'out to us before dawn. And another thing: shoot the poor peasants. The rich ones will be glad to bring us all they have. That’s all!” As in most Soviet era literature, there are no grey zones. The Bolsheviks are all that’s good and saintly and the Dashnaks, who were actually half-decent nationalists, are shown to be purely evil.

Stepan is another peasant, the hero of the story, who is on top of Eagle Mountain (which is why the story is called “On the Mountain”) watching the Dashnaks who hold the cliffs of Agara Gorge keep the brave Soviet forces at bay. The Dashnaks don’t have heavy artillery, but their machine guns keep the Soviet troops down in their trenches. ‘The Communists fired their big gun at the peaks; the canyons shuddered and echoed like the big empty pitcher in his room; everything was enveloped in clouds of rust-coloured dust. When the dust settled the untouched positions of the Dashnaks came into view again, and once again the machine-gun began coughing viciously, keeping the men down..........He placed his sheepskin hat under his rifle and took careful aim. Then he held his breath, waiting for the cannon to roar so that the Dashnaks would not hear the sound of his shot. The cannon roared and Stepan fired. The Dashnak in the grey sheepskin hat fell heavily on the machine-gun........Stepan pressed his chin into his interlaced fingers and watched the Red Army men jumping out of the trenches and rushing towards the gorge. A machine-gun rattled in the distance, and the one that had been silenced began coughing fire again...........This time Stepan did not wait for the cannon to roar. He fired and the machine gun choked and was silent.....................’

Stepan hesitated for a moment and then fired again, this time at the Dashnak commander. He cursed softly for having missed. The Dashnaks spotted him and opened fire from all sides. A thud in his shoulder sent a sharp pain through his body.

The canyon resounded with the battle cry of the men in green army shirts who had broken through to the mountain valley and were running with a red banner, the colour of the sun rising over the mountain, billowing above them. ' I wonder if Bolshevik forces anywhere have charged at an enemy carrying a red banner, but then “Enemy At The Gates” does have a scene showing Soviet troops carry a red banner as they charge at the troops of the Third Reich, so maybe they did do so.

Movses Arazi’s “Comrade Mukuch” is the story is a poor watchman whose life changes after Soviet rule is introduced. At the beginning of the story, Mukuch is dressed in rags and shoes that are held together by bits of string, nails or wire. One day a piece of leather goes missing in the factory and Mukuch is accused of theft by the new factory manager. A nervous Mukuch attends an enquiry, prepared for the worst. ‘Mukuch’s eyes came to rest on a large portrait of Lenin on the wall. They say he’s a good man. If only he was here now and could help me, I wouldn’t be in such a mess.’

A bell tinkled, bringing the meeting to order. People were getting up to speak, but Mukuch did not follow their words. He came to with a start, when a worker named Saak began to speak. Saak had a loud voice and his words were easy to understand. How angry he was today. It seemed that he was breathing fire. Naturally he was angry at Mukuch. How strange though: Saak had just said, “Comrade Mukuch”? If he was angry with him, why did he call him “Comrade Mukuch”? That was a term of respect. Moreover, the (new) manager was on pins and needles all during Saak’s speech. He kept jumping to his feet, raising his hand to reply and finally stalked out, red in the face, muttering to himself.................Now again, someone else had referred to him as “Comrade Mukuch”. Yes, they were praising him. Despite the hunger and cold, Mukuch is always on the job, like a soldier at his post............... No, there could be no doubt about it. They were all helping him, they were all defending him! The chains that bound his heart burst. He had been frozen when he entered the building, but now he felt warm all over.'

The narrator next meets Mukuch three years later at a workers’ meeting. He is now clean shaven and his old clothes and shoes have been sent to a museum. Comrade Mukuch makes a speech in support of the revolution that is greeted with applause.

Rachia Kochar’s “Thirst” is set during the Second World War when ‘the earth trembled from gun volleys’. “Thirst” reminded me of Mikhail Sholokhov’s writings set in the Second World War. Mikael, the hero of “Thirst” is forever in danger, always surviving by the skin of his teeth. The Red Army is in retreat until the long-awaited hour strikes and the Soviet army begins a massive counter-offensive that would not be stopped by any force on earth.’ Does Mikael survive? Do please read this story and find out.

Vigenn Khechumian’s “The Bridge” tells the story of Chief mason Navasard who waits for his son to return from the War. Navasard’s family has built stone bridges for generations and the Chief mason cannot wait for his son Armenak to return so that he can hand over the bridge building to him. Armenak does return, but brings with him a Russian wife and son. To add to Navasard’s irritation, his son praises steel bridges, which are supposedly lighter and stronger than stone bridges. This moving tale is the story of how Navarsard adjusts to his daughter-in-law and modernity and accepts his grandson.

Sero Khanzadian’s “The White Lamb” is a heart-rending tale of a gardener named Navarsard (named just as in Vigenn Khechumian’s “The Bridge” where the Chief mason is also called Navarsard), whose son is a big shot in Moscow and hasn’t come home for ten years. One day, Navarsard hears from a fellow villager that Arshak has returned to the village. As the father rushes home to greet his son, various villagers tell the father that they have seen Arshak, that he is driving a blue sedan, that he is with the village Chairman etc. The father gathers various things, such as a honey comb and fresh figs, which his son used to love and prepares to slaughter a lamb. However, Arshak drives away from the village without meeting his father.

Mkrtich Sarkisian’s “How You’ve Changed Girls” could have been set in any modern society when the young are generally allowed to fall in love and marry the person of their choice, but where social status and parental expectations do play a role in pairings. That it is set in a collective farm in Soviet Armenia and that the pretty girl is the only child of the Chairman and the young man the son of ordinary workers only make this story more interesting.

Mkrtich Armen’s story “The Girl Who Looked For Me” reminds me of “D”, a story I recently read in Deepti Naval’s collection of short stories - The Mad Tibetan – Stories From Then And Now. Ruben is walking aimlessly along a street when a pretty girl walks up and demands to know why Ruben hasn’t kept in touch. Do remember, this story was written before the advent of emails and mobile phones. “The Girl Who Looked For Me” has an ending that is very different from “D”. When the girl walks away from Ruben after extracting a promise to keep in touch, Ruben still hasn’t managed to remember her.

Gegam Sevan’s “The Swallows Were Flying Low” is the story of Levon, a man who enjoys life. Narrated by Levon’s nephew, we hear Levon tell him, ‘Eat. I told you. Never hesitate to take the joys life offers. Grab them and don’t waste time on thinking about it for God’s sake. If you’ve found something, take it. And never refuse anything. Now fresh-fried fish with vodka and onions, that is, if you eat with your hands, hear, only with your hands, is also one of life’s joys.’ Levon takes his nephew fishing in the sea and they are caught in a storm. They survive of course and despite that ordeal, the narrator is left with happy memories of the sea, sun and life.

Vardkes Petrosian’s “Good Morning, Jack” is the story of Arsen, the wastrel son of a hard working father, who has a brief affair with a girl named Mary. Arsen loafs around, lies to Mary that he has a job on the night shift, gives his name as Jack and has fun for a while, till he realises that he has fallen in love. Arsen then backs out and walks away. We don’t get to know what exactly Arsen’s father does, save that he works at a plant and has a driver. The dialogues could have come from young people anywhere in the world in the 1970s and this story gives one a feel of middle-class Soviet Armenian society.

Khazak Giulnazarian’s “The Sixth Commandment” is yet another love story. Unlike “Good Morning, Jack”, here the girl rejects the soon-to-be-famous poet and doesn’t seem to be any worse for it.

In all, this is a splendid read for anyone who enjoys Soviet–era literature or wants to get a feel of Armenia before the collapse of communism.